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Focus on Issues: with Threat of American Veto, Israel Still Holding off U.N. Force

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Israel this week continued to fend off Palestinian attempts to convince the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and “internationalize” the Middle East conflict.

Together with their Arab and Third World partners, the Palestinians had hoped the U.N. Security Council would express support for such a force – at least in principle – and send a strong message before the Arab League summit that opened Tuesday in Jordan.

As of Tuesday afternoon, however, the Security Council was in its fifth day of debate on the issue, with the United States threatening to veto any proposal that didn’t have Israeli approval.

A similar Palestinian effort in December narrowly failed.

Some U.N. members are increasingly frustrated both with their perceived fecklessness in the face of continuing Mideast violence and the United States’ ability to undermine U.N. efforts to get more involved in the conflict.

These countries hint of more drastic measures such as bypassing the 15-member Security Council – where the U.S. can wield its veto – in favor of the General Assembly, where the vast Arab and Muslim bloc holds sway among the 189 members.

Unlike Security Council resolutions, however, those passed in the General Assembly are not legally binding.

Describing the situation as “worsening,” Colombia’s U.N. ambassador, Alfonso Valdivieso, said the Security Council “cannot remain silent.”

“We cannot continue with the idea that involvement of the Security Council is harmful to the process; it’s an error,” Valdivieso told JTA.

The United States maintains that an international force – ostensibly intended to protect Palestinian civilians – must have the consent of both Israel and the Palestinians. In practice, no country would agree to provide soldiers or other personnel for a mission likely to be greeted with hostility.

Israel opposes the force as unnecessary, and says it is likely to be ineffective.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said earlier this month that if Palestinians stopped attacking Israeli troops – and launching terrorist attacks against civilians – they wouldn’t need “protection” from any Israeli response.

Moreover, Israel believes U.N. intervention might lead to an imposed, not negotiated, solution to the conflict – one imposed by a world body Israel sees as inherently biased against the Jewish state by virtue of the large Arab and Muslim bloc and its allies.

Valdivieso, who served as ambassador to Israel in 1992, said he appreciates the Israeli perspective and the complexity of the situation.

However, he said, “The international community is receiving the wrong message, that the Security Council is apart from the conflict. We must defend the role of the Security Council and comply with our responsibility to confront the violence.”

Valdivieso said he hoped an international mission would act as a catalyzing force whose presence would bring a halt to the violence, paving the way for a resumption of peace talks.

But Israeli officials say the effect would be just the opposite.

“It would just be a prize for Palestinian cynicism,” one Israeli diplomat said. “They started the violence, then they ask for protection from violence.”

Meanwhile, the Arab League on Tuesday began what is expected to be another round of Israel-bashing at its summit in Amman. Tuesday’s opening session included surprisingly harsh criticism of Israel from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who often is praised by Israeli leaders for his moderation.

“The international community and the Arab world have every right to criticize Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, and for its excessively harsh response to the Intifada,” Annan said. “But these points could be made more effectively if many Israelis did not believe that their existence was under threat.”

To some Jewish observers, calling Israeli reaction to attacks “excessive” is a way of blaming Israel for the ongoing violence.

However, Annan also added: “Now, more than ever, what we need is movement toward an agreement that responds both to the legitimate desire of the Palestinians for national independence, and to the legitimate claims of the Israelis to recognition and security.”

Observers say that Israel’s success in forestalling a U.N. force is only partial; the Arabs and their U.N. allies will try to paint Israeli resistance to such a force as a lack of sincerity to end the violence.

“We can ignore it as the same-old, same-old, but the U.N. has tremendous authority around the world and the Security Council has binding legal authority according to international law to enforce their decisions,” said Shula Bahat, acting executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “So it does matter what happens there.”

U.N. pressure on Israel is unlikely to let up.

If the issue does move to the General Assembly, Palestinian supporters might argue that a Palestinian state already exists de facto in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and thus an intervention force can be sent there.

Some dismiss that scenario as implausible because the United Nations would need Israeli clearance to physically enter the Palestinian territories.

“Do the Arabs use the U.N. for theater or for resolving problems? They use it for theater,” Bahat said. “The Palestinians are not serious about reaching a peace settlement, so they use the political force of the global arena to try to accomplish their goals.”

But Jewish observers say there’s more to the request for peacekeepers than just “protecting” Palestinians.

Any sort of international presence coordinated by the United Nations would advance the Palestinian agenda, Jewish observers say.

Rather than force Palestinians to return to the negotiating table – and American mediation that the Arab world views as pro-Israeli – a force from the Palestinian-friendly U.N. would create “facts on the ground” that could be expanded over the years.

This time, “they would settle for observers who write reports,” Bahat said. “The next time it could be beefed up to include humanitarian or logistical analysts, then civilian police, then military observers, until you have armed peacekeepers.”

Observers say it’s not unusual for U.N. peacekeepers to be used as shields. For example, if Hamas were to shoot at Israeli troops from among a crowd of U.N. peacekeepers, Israel presumably would be reluctant to shoot back.

And Israeli officials note that last October, Hezbollah gunmen kidnapped three Israeli soldiers on patrol along the Israel-Lebanon border, while U.N. peacekeepers reportedly looked on from a nearby outpost.

A peacekeeping mission also raises another question: Which countries would commit troops? Would they be friends or foes of Israel?

Peacekeepers are human, and have their own preferences and prejudices. The U.N. mission in Bosnia in the mid-1990s was tainted when it emerged that French peacekeepers had tipped off the Bosnian Serbs to U.N. plans.

Valdivieso was asked if Israeli concerns of unfair treatment at the United Nations are irrational.

“I understand that’s a feeling that comes from reality; it’s not invented by Israel,” he said. “The paradox is, Israel was established and allowed to exist through the U.N.”

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